Cultivation of C4 perennial energy grasses on heavy metal contaminated arable land: Impact on soil, biomass, and photosynthetic traits

Environ Pollut. 2019 Jul;250:300-311. doi: 10.1016/j.envpol.2019.04.048. Epub 2019 Apr 11.


The objective of this study was to evaluate the potential of three C4 perennial grasses (Miscanthus x giganteus, Panicum virgatum and Spartina pectinata) for biomass production on arable land unsuitable for food crop cultivation due to Pb, Cd and Zn contamination. We assessed soil properties, biomass yield, metal concentrations, and the photosynthetic performance of each species. Physico-chemical and elemental analyses were performed on soil samples before plantation establishment (2014) and after three years of cultivation (2016), when leaf area index, plant height, yield and heavy metal content of biomass were also determined. Physiological measurements (gas exchange, pigment content, chlorophyll a fluorescence) were recorded monthly between June and September on mature plants in 2016. Cultivation of investigated plants resulted in increased pH, nitrogen, and organic matter (OM) content in soil, although OM increase (13%) was significant only for S. pectinata plots. During the most productive months, maximal quantum yield values of primary photochemistry (Fv/Fm) and gas exchange parameter values reflected literature data of those plants grown on uncontaminated sites. Biomass yields of M. x giganteus (15.0 ± 0.4 t d.m. ha-1) and S. pectinata (12.6 ± 1.2 t d.m. ha-1) were also equivalent to data published from uncontaminated land. P. virgatum performed poorly (4.1 ± 0.4 t d.m. ha-1), probably due to unfavourable climatic conditions, although metal uptake in this species was the highest (3.6 times that of M. x giganteus for Pb). Yield and physiological measurements indicated that M. x giganteus and S. pectinata were unaffected by the levels of contamination and therefore offer alternatives for areas where food production is prohibited. The broad cultivatable latitudinal range of these species suggests these results are widely relevant for development of the bioeconomy. We recommend multi-location trials under diverse contaminant and environmental regimes to determine the full potential of these species.

Keywords: Chlorophyll fluorescence; Gas exchange; Miscanthus; Prairie cordgrass; Switchgrass.

MeSH terms

  • Biomass
  • Chlorophyll A
  • Metals, Heavy / analysis*
  • Nitrogen / analysis
  • Photosynthesis
  • Plant Leaves / chemistry
  • Poaceae / chemistry
  • Poaceae / growth & development*
  • Soil / chemistry
  • Soil Pollutants / analysis*


  • Metals, Heavy
  • Soil
  • Soil Pollutants
  • Nitrogen
  • Chlorophyll A